Tunisia's opposition defends unity government as pressure mounts
Protesters from Tunisia's interior – where the revolution started – arrived in the capital yesterday, significantly increasing the pressure on the week-old unity government.
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Opposition party members who have joined the government say the inclusion of the old guard is necessary to preserve stability and continuity until new elections, expected to be held within six months.Skip to next paragraph
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TV station taken off air, political prisoners yet to be freed
But protesters are angry that much of the political system built by Ben Ali – and the residual effects of it – remains intact.
Though government censorship on newspapers has largely evaporated, on Monday police arrested the head of a popular private television channel, accused him of treason, and took the station off the air. And while the government says it has freed the political prisoners of Ben Ali’s regime, advocates say hundreds are still in jail.
Samir Ben Amor, head of the International Association for Support of Political Prisoners, says that only about 200 prisoners were released, and between 300 and 800 political prisoners are still being held. Most of those who were released had cases that were still pending, while those still imprisoned had already been convicted, he says.
“The government doesn’t tell the truth,” he says. “These were lies from the government and we’re still suffering from this government. We consider it a version of the old government, just wearing nicer clothes.”
Mr. Ben Amor, a weary looking man with dark circles under his eyes, fields a call from the mother of a political prisoner, asking why her son is not home when the officials on TV say political prisoners have been released.
He says that at least 150 prisoners have been killed since the government changed hands, many in violence he says was incited by remnants of Ben Ali’s security forces who wanted to foment chaos. Prisoners live in desperate conditions without regular food or medicine, he says.
Lack of forgiveness
Many of Tunisia’s political prisoners are convicted using a counterterrorism law, often using coerced confessions or simply false evidence. Ben Ali, who crushed a nascent Islamist movement in the 1990s, frequently used the threat of Islamic extremism as a reason to flex the muscles of his huge security apparatus.
“Many of them had been given false convictions. The only thing that made them go to jail was having a long beard, wearing traditional clothes, or refusing to cooperate with security,” says Ben Amor. “Their cases don’t have any official proof for any crime they had done. In Tunisia, we have terrorists without terrorism.”
He is trying to pressure the new government to issue an amnesty to both release the prisoners and clear their records. “It’s very important to turn the page radically and completely so we can start a new page and these people can rebuild their lives,” he says. But he is not confident the new government will do so.
“How can we give a chance to the old members of the regime, and not take them to the courts, while we don’t forgive these people who are victims of the old regime?”